We Decided to Wear The Sky
The summer Fiona jumped out of a window my hair turned white. We stood on the street yelling up at her window, calling her name. Where are you? Are you home? Can you hear us through the glass? We know how her mother liked to keep the windows shut, doors locked, lights out. We called out Fiona’s name like sermon, like song. That’s how we did it back then — we were screamers. Who had a dime to use a payphone when ten cents was so close to a quarter and a quarter got you a bag of Dipsy Doodles? We liked licking the salt and the grease off our fingers. After ten minutes we shrugged our shoulders and made our plans. Let’s go to the pool. Let’s get the ice that stained our mouths blue and hot pink. Forget her. Our faces were slick with sweat and we were sunburned and hungry and we wondered who had a wrench to get the johnny pump going because the pool was a good fifteen blocks away. The moment we turned our backs Fiona opened a window, stepped one foot, then the other, on the fire escape, and jumped. We wouldn’t know until later that her hair got caught in a tree, that it took a few hours for anyone to realize she was gone. More still to find her body.
I look like a fucking albino, I said. Look at this hair, all white. I’m 12, not 40, not old like you. My aunt laughed; her mouth was a graveyard. You’ll be old and miserable soon enough, she said. The whites of her eyes were jaundiced and everyone said this is what happens when you’re wedded to a needle. But I didn’t care. My aunt was cool when she wasn’t on the nod. We spent a good hour in the drugstore because of the free air conditioning and she picked up a box of Clairol hair dye and said we’ll fix this right quick. At home, under the sink, I felt like I was drowning and my hair was brown for a while until the roots came in, cruel and white.
Where’s your mother, my aunt asked. Double shift. Working. What about you? I asked my aunt. Why don’t you have a job? Oh, I work, she said, drawing an invisible line between us. At night, up and down Ft. Hamilton Parkway — I’m in the hospitality business, she said. I’m in the business of smiles. Later that night my mother rolled her eyes and said, smiles? That sister of mine is a junkie whore. Close your legs. Cover your arms. Don’t end up like her. Back then my mother was a five-alarm fire, warning me about all the things I shouldn’t be doing, all the places I shouldn’t go, and all the ways I could fall prey to undertow. I spent much of my childhood trying not to drown instead of learning how to swim.
If you’re not careful you could end up dead. Look at that Fiona, falling out of a window. Or worse, you could get pregnant. Fiona jumped, I said, but my voice was what I swallowed. My mother was the ticking that was the bomb.
Fiona was famous on the stoop for two weeks. She was a glacier. Everyone had their theories and suppositions. The mother who painted the windows shut, frightened of the air getting in. The stepfather who hawked a pretty young girl coming up in the house. Con Edison shutting off the lights. The landlord who taped eviction notices to the door. The mother shoving their clothes into trash bags, preparing to flee into the night. The diary the cops found under Fiona’s bed where an eleven-year-old scrawled the same line over and over: it never gets better. That was the year Bellevue ran out of beds; the crazies had to sleep standing up or in straightjackets on the floor.
It never gets better? Who knows this? Who knows the full stretch of life before it’s even lived?
Back in the day we didn’t go to the emergency room unless we were bleeding out. No one had time to wait all night before someone took down their name and number. No one had hospital bill money. But a child whose hair continued to grow in white was entirely too much for my mother to bear. She was apoplectic. What if she has cancer? She doesn’t have cancer, the stoop chorus countered. She would be dead by now. Why is your hair white, my mother kept asking. We had burnt blueberry muffins for dinner three days in a row because they were the only leftovers from the luncheonette in which she worked.
How the fuck should I know?
A few months later, everyone talked about the mother who left her newborn at the bottom of an emptied pool. You can only imagine a mother sliding down sixteen feet and crawling back up, the cries of her child hot on her back. People talked about the echo of the baby crying, the bewildering pain of being abandoned and alone, and how it was a dealer who called the cops from a payphone because a crying baby was bad for business. It was October and cold and leaves fell over the child’s face when the police climbed down and collected her. Fiona had become a distant memory because there was always a new tragedy, there was always a fresh hurt that eclipsed the one that had come before. No one realized the baby’s mother lay a few feet ahead, eyes wide, mouth scabbed, fingers singed. Cracked glass cut into her palm. We hopscotched over the bodies back then because so many people we used to know were dead or on the verge of dying.
The following summer I started to bleed. We moved in packs, screaming at new windows, ringing new bells. My hair grew back in brown and my mother shrugged her shoulders, relieved I didn’t have cancer. She had new worries now. Don’t have sex. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t catch AIDS. A new family moved into the space where Fiona had lived. Even though we liked the new girl and she played the latest records we felt it was somewhat disloyal to yell at her window. That was Fiona’s window, we agreed, and we ducked our head around the way.